The Wisdom reading debunks the harsh image people have of God. But, this God loves all that exists, and ‘holds nothing …..in abhorrence.’ God loves each person even those considered loathsome. What a difference it would make if could see each person and living things through the lens of God’s love - whether in terms of our criminal justice system; detaining innocent and vulnerable people in detention centres; providing proper services to the aged, people with mental illness or disabilities; the funding of armaments; and, allowing the big polluters of our environment continue!
The gospel also challenges us in our refusal to acknowledge our debt and make reparations to the First Nations who have had their land stolen, culture destroyed, children taken away and wages not paid for 230 years. Admission of having benefited from such injustices might mean going ‘out on a limb’ when it comes to justice. The USA is also challenged vis-à-vis the ‘fruits’ of slavery not to mention the great losses suffered by their First Nations people.
Zacchaeus’ is called to climb down from the tree and join (or re-join) the rest of humanity. The bystanders were also up ‘up the tree’. Being up a tree can be preferable and more comfortable as we watch the world go by: the world of refugees, people living in poverty; gay people whose rights are still denied; the threats to Indigenous land by nuclear waste dumping, loggers and mining; the neglect of people living with mental illness; workers laid off as executives accrue higher salaries; and the earth suffers the effects our heavy footprint. We are called to come down and be in solidarity with our vulnerable brothers and sisters – all in need of God’s love Jesus is calling us to come down to the dusty street; to come down and get involved where we can.
Jesus bids us, ‘Come out of your tree, for I'm moving in with you today.’ This is liberation today. It is about restoration. When Jesus moves in with us, change happens. His sharing of a meal with those considered sinners is not about being soft on sin but being strong on healing and reconciliation. It is not about appearances but about a new consciousness, a new focus. God’s reign is evident in the revolution that happened in Zacchaeus and we have to believe it can be so in us.
As Zacchaeus went out on a limb, these reflections might put me there too. The gospel is addressing the problem of unjustly acquired wealth and reparation not only in our personal lives but also as nations and churches where peoples have been colonised, their lands pillaged, resources stolen and millions of people enslaved. Most people probably oppose reparations claiming they bear no guilt for the wounding and trauma of other people. Though not guilty, we bear responsibility for our lives that have and continue to benefit from oppression. The gospel calls into question the view that there is no connection between faith and reparations. Zacchaeus recognised that as a tax collector he had extorted from poor people resulting in the divestment of half his property. To identifiable victims of extortion, he offered to return four times the fraud. We need see that though his victims suffered wounds, so did he. He had invisible wounds. Our country bears such wounds to which we are blind and project them on other people. Our fears about security are reflected in our tendency to make alliances with other nations to our detriment, spend on armaments and enact draconian laws that hurt people who come here seeking safety. Any nation that has colonised another or been complicit in slavery can never be whole until they face these injustices perpetrated over the centuries.
Zacchaeus gives up the trappings of his present life - its abundance and alienation to climb a tree. For an authentic life a shift is required like climbing a tree to gain a new vision. At ground level he cannot see what is possible and is thus still caught in the same sights that wounded him and others. In the encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus is free to see himself as one who belongs. Jesus' words is an opportunity for him to restart, reimagine, and revolutionise his life-with an identity that enables him to reach beyond his mistakes, beyond his occupation, beyond his infractions. Zacchaeus was an extension of a system – an empire - complicit or collaborating in his own oppression. In order to survive the injustice around him and avoid the poverty of the time, he joins the colonising project to control his people. The normalisation of our social context can create the impulse to prey on other people. He accepts what is available to him and normalises the injustice it embodies. His daily life is reduced to symptoms of the sickness of his society. Some will destroy their own people in the name of survival.
Jesus offers Zacchaeus, and us, a way out beyond the wreckage of the past. Jesus offers a new way to be alive, alert, and available to each other. Jesus offers Zacchaeus a way to shift the narrative of his life. We all need this gift of reimagining life beyond everything that deadens, corrupts, and paralyses. There are moments in life when God gives you the opportunity to go public with your transformation.
Zacchaeus and Jesus teach us that human beings, communities and nations, can be evolutionaries—always becoming. Our lives do not have to packed in the small boxes people present to us. This is the case with the First Nations peoples, women in the church, gay and lesbian+ people in church and society. We can stand on our growth. We do not have to internalise the blindness of those who cannot see our worth. Today’s gospel teaches us that we can outgrow the tentacles of social trauma, unlearn the lessons of oppression, and get rid of our demons. I would love to see this happen in Australia. Liberation, healing, wholeness is knocking on our door and those knocking are the one who we have oppressed. .
Zacchaeus’ small stature was not the problem. It was his small or narrow vision. This is very much part of today’s gospel story. Being up a tree, is a precarious position to be in. Jesus calls him away from his precarious vision to a face to face encounter and do it on solid ground. The same Jesus calls out to us individually, as communities, churches and nations, as he did to Zacchaeus: ‘Come down from that obscure vision; come on and see me for the person I really am.
Jesus offers us all an open door to a new world. He unveils our situation not to condemn but to liberate, heal and reconcile. We are offered a life of effective love. We are offered the chance to become ‘Church’ – in our politics, in our religion, in our hearts.
God’s power is manifested as mercy and compassion. As we face this week will we be more fully accepting of others? Will we search out and find the ones our world, church, family does not extend a welcome to? Will we seek new and imaginative ways of welcome and hospitality? We can do this when we unlearn the lessons of oppression and understand that God's love is present in our world right now, that Jesus is in our midst, and Jesus always welcomes us and often invites through people who have been marginalised, disregarded, wounded and oppressed.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Erskineville, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)